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The challenges transgender children face

At least now we’re starting to talk about those challenges openly.

One month after voters in Houston rejected an equal rights ordinance that proponents say would have protected transgender people from discrimination, Ben and his parents, Ann and Jim Elder of Friendswood, are among families nationwide challenging their communities to respect the identities of kids who feel their true gender doesn’t match their bodies. Their experience, and Houston’s, illustrate the gap in understanding gender identity issues and the divide over how best to deal with them in places such as public restrooms, courthouses, day care centers and schools. As much as the country has changed in accepting gay marriage, transgender rights remains a new frontier, rife with uncertainty.

Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she expects to see a tipping point as more transgender children like Ben express themselves, just as gay rights gained momentum after families began supporting openly gay children.

Until then, misunderstanding reigns.

Take the case of two former Katy child care workers. A week after the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was defeated following the airing of TV ads alleging the law would permit transgender men to assault girls in women’s bathrooms, the workers said they were fired by the Katy center for refusing to treat one of their students as a transgender boy.

Accepting the child’s assertion at such a young age “just didn’t make sense to me,” said one of the workers, Madeline Kirksey, who argues that she had the child’s best interests at heart. Kirksey has filed a federal discrimination complaint challenging her dismissal and is represented by an attorney who fought to bring HERO before voters, leading to its ultimate defeat.

“I still believe that, at that age, they’re exploring,” Kirksey maintained. “It’s innocence. … Let her explore for herself until she gets older and then decide.”

Meanwhile, the Texas Association of School Boards describes transgender issues as “relatively new in public discourse, understanding and the law.”

While state law does not explicitly protect students who are transgender, it says students are safe from discrimination “based on their gender identity and their free speech expressions of that gender identity,” including choice of clothing, name and gender, according to a written explanation from the association’s legal division.

The association provides sample policy documents to protect against discrimination based on gender. Districts like Houston ISD have taken the language further, to explicitly cover “gender identity and/or gender expression.”

Conflict in the state regarding bathrooms and locker rooms, however, “is not legally settled,” the explanation reads, concluding that schools should “assess each situation as it comes … to reach a resolution that protects the learning environment for all.”

[…]

While the medical community doesn’t have clear data on why individuals identify with a certain gender, kids as young as age 3 may begin to understand “what their preferred gender roles are, what their gender expression will be,” said Robert McLaughlin, a clinical psychologist and dean of the school of allied health sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.

Early on, features that may indicate gender dysphoria can manifest in a preference for the clothes, toys, games or even peers of the other gender, said Meredith Chapman, a psychiatrist with Children’s Health in Dallas. In more severe cases, children might say they wish to be the other gender, express unhappiness about their body or try to harm their genitals.

There isn’t a clinical consensus on specific treatment methods for gender variant kids, Chapman said. But experts agree that denying a child’s claims or trying to coerce him or her to be one way or another likely has dangerous ramifications.

“We never know a child’s outcome,” McLaughlin said. “All we know is the child we have before us. We can make that child’s path miserable and tragic, or we can make that child’s path supported and affirmative.”

I have a certain amount of sympathy for the Katy child care workers, because not that long ago I would have thought the same thing. I know more now, which (along with their choice of attorney) limits the amount of sympathy that I feel. Gay and lesbian kids generally have an easier time of it than they did even 10 or 20 years ago because we all know more as a society about who they are and what they’re experiencing. There’s still a long way to go, and far too many gay and lesbian kids still encounter hostility and rejection, but the progress is obvious and the direction we’re going is clear. We need to get there for trans kids as well, and the sooner we do the fewer of them we will lose to violence, drugs, and suicide. A year ago at this time blogger/pundit Nancy Sims wrote about her experience as the parent of a transgender child. Go read that and remind yourself why this matters. Every kid deserves a chance to grow up and be loved and accepted for who they are.

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